At this time of year, plum trees are laden with fruit in the Waikato. But, these are backyard plum trees.
It’s hard to buy locally grown plums. There’s only one kind of plum (which definitely isn’t local) at my local fruit shop, and none at the supermarket.
The Divine Fruits stall at Hamilton Farmers’ Market are selling superb plums, peaches and nectarines, all locally grown at Newstead. But I was too late last week – they’d sold out.
If you don’t mind a drive into the country, McMiken’s Orchards at 552 Morrinsville Rd, just past Newstead, are selling freshly picked plums and nectarines.
Plums highlight the need for a multi-faceted local food economy.
They are one of the many fruits and vegetables that don’t fit well in the commercial food market. For more on this, here’s a post I wrote about New Zealand’s local food economy in more general terms.
But plums are very easy to grow in backyards and community orchards, if you have room. Plum trees can take up a lot of space.
Plums aren’t big in supermarkets. That’s because most plum varieties don’t keep well, and they don’t travel well.
Also, supermarkets prefer fruit to be a consistent size and shape, and also to have a strong sweet-sour flavour. The Wilson’s Early and Billington plums that are abundant in Waikato back gardens right now are too small and too delicate in flavour to capture supermarket buyers.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall claims plums taste better cooked than eaten fresh. I think that’s because the flavour is much better straight off the tree.
Where are plums from?
Plums grow all over the world in temperate zones, both wild and domesticated. They’re related to peaches, apricots and cherries.
Plums may have been one of the first fruits domesticated by humans. Prunus domestica has been traced to East Europe and the Caucasian mountains, and other Prunus cultivars originated in Asia.
The pleasures of plums
Plums come in a variety of colours and textures and flavours. There are tiny cherry plums, barely 1cm in diameter, big juicy sweet pink-yellow Luisa plums, yellow greengage, dark purple sweet-sour Black Doris and many more.
Plums are outsiders in the fruit world. They’re not usually considered a glamorous or treat fruit, unlike strawberries, blueberries, grapes or peaches. Nobody’s declared plums a “superfood” (yet).
Plums aren’t an everyday lunchbox item, like bananas, mandarins or apples. Even though they’re perfectly sized for lunchboxes.
I think this is because industrial food marketers have never put their attention on marketing plums. There just isn’t enough profit to be made from fresh plums. Prunes, on the other hand, get plenty of marketing.
Plums are about community
When you have a couple of plum trees, you’ll suddenly have far more than you need for one family.
You have a couple of options. (Other than letting the birds eat them.) You can go into preserving mode: bottling, drying, freezing, making jam and chutney and plum wine.
If you enjoy preserving, and if you have time and energy to do it, and also if you have a household to eat your products, that’s great.
However, most plum preserving recipes use a lot of sugar. And many people are cutting down sugar consumption.
The other option is to share the bounty.
Plum trees make a lot of sense as community assets, commons.
People who don’t have a plum tree love getting free plums. My son Albert said he’d had a big bag dropped off at his flat by a friend of one of his flatmates.
If you have a plum oversupply and you don’t know anyone who wants plums, contact Community Fruit Hamilton , or Kaivolution, our local food rescue organization, and they’ll probably be able to help you deal with them.
How to grow plums
Plum trees are easy to grow. They grow quickly and start bearing after a couple of years. And they’re not prone to codling moth (unlike apples) or rot (unlike peaches).
Here’s a post I wrote about our prolific plum tree.
However, you need to prune your plum tree after the first few years or the tree will grow very big.
We have a couple of huge old cherry plum trees at the bottom of our garden, planted long before we came here.
The plums are delicious, but they’re high up in the trees and very difficult to pick. I consider them my gift to the birds of Hillcrest.
How to plant a fruit tree
If you’re thinking about planting fruit trees, here’s a link to How to Plant a Fruit Tree, an ebook I co-wrote with my friend and neighbour Clare Jackson.
This book could save you lots of money and time! It contains a lot of what I’ve learned from Clare over the years. Including everything I wish I’d known before I planted my fruit trees.
In case you’re wondering – this isn’t the right time of year to plant a fruit tree. Wait until early winter, when the temperatures have cooled down and the soil is moist.
Plums for different months
There are two important things to know, when you’re deciding what kind of plums to grow.
Plum trees need pollinators to produce fruit.
This means, another plum tree with compatible pollen.
Ask the plant supplier and check the label. The pollinator tree doesn’t have to be in your garden – if a neighbour has a compatible tree then that would be okay.
We had a plum tree in our Auckland garden that never produced any plums. I eventually chopped it down. But now I understand that it was just lonely – it needed a pollinator.
Plum varieties ripen at different times.
There are many plum varieties that grow well in the Waikato. The local Treecrops Association is a great source of people with local knowledge and experience. You can go to their meetings and field days and ask questions.
Early plums like Billington and Wilson’s Early ripen in December. Omega, Purple King and Luisa ripen in January. The dark purple Black Doris plums ripen in February, as do Hawera, Fortune and damsons.
Also, plums are often biennial – one year the tree might have a huge crop, the next year hardly anything.
How to eat plums
I think plums are best eaten fresh off the tree.
But when you have an extra supply, here are some of my favourite plum recipes.
This makes an easy festive dessert with plain yoghurt or vanilla icecream. Or custard.
It’s from The Joy of Cooking, by Irma S Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker.
Preheat oven to 210 degC
Grease an oven pan or casserole dish (approx 20cm square)
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 or 3 tablespoons butter
½ tsp vanilla essence
4 cups sliced, unpeeled plums – make sure you remove all the stones
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
3 tablespoons melted butter
Place flour, baking powder, salt and 2 tablespoons sugar in a bowl. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons butter. Rub the butter into the flour mixture with your hands until it has the texture of fine. breadcrumbs.
Whisk together the egg and vanilla essence.
Make a well in the flour mixture. Add the egg mixture and stir together.
Place the dough in the greased pan. Pat with your palm or with a floured spoon so it covers the pan.
Place the fruit on the dough. Arrange the slices closely in overlapping rows.
Mix together the brown sugar, cinnamon and melted butter.
Sprinkle this over the plums
Bake for about 25 minutes.
This superb recipe is a bit fiddly but well worth the trouble.
It comes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. I’ve reduced the sugar quantities.
A clafoutis is more usually made with cherries, but plums are wonderful too.
3 cups pitted plums. Slice them neatly if you can. Julia et al say peel the plums, but I don’t bother.
¼ cup cognac, orange liqueur or kirsch
1/3 cup sugar
Place the plums in a bowl and sprinkle with the liqueur and sugar. Leave to stand while you make the batter.
1 cup milk
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/8 tsp salt
½ cup flour
Whisk together milk, sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt and flour.
Butter a baking dish or pie plate
Pour a 1cm layer of batter into the plate.
Bake for a few minutes until the batter is set.
Spread the plums evenly over the batter.
Pour the rest of the batter over the top. Smooth the surface with a spoon if necessary.
Bake for about an hour, until it is puffed and browned. It’s ready when a skewer or knife plunged into the centre comes out clean.
Plum sorbet or jelly
You could eat this either as a jelly or a frozen sorbet.
Jelly made with agar-agar has a great texture when frozen. Also, it’s vegetarian.
3 or 4 cups of plums, stones removed and stewed.
Add sugar to taste.
Put the plums through a mouli or blender. A mouli is better if you have one, because it will remove the skins and the texture will be better.
Measure the plum puree and add 1 tsp agar-agar powder for every cup of plums.
Bring back to the boil – this step is necessary to dissolve the agar-agar.
Remove from heat.
When the mixture is cool, place in the freezer for sorbet. Or chill in the fridge if you want jelly.
This is sweet-sour condiment goes well with both Asian and European cuisine.
This is a basic recipe. Sometimes I also add garlic and chilli.
3 kg plums
1 kg brown sugar
1.5 litres cider vinegar
4 tsp salt
50g grated fresh ginger
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground black pepper
Place everything in a preserving pan.
Bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
Boil until the plums are quite soft.
Rub the plums through a strainer to remove the stones.
Return to the pan and cook until the sauce is thick enough. If it’s really thick it will be chutney rather than sauce.